Poland’s Special Way

Keith Middlemas

  • The Polish August: What Happened in Poland by Neal Ascherson
    Allen Lane, 316 pp, £12.50, December 1981, ISBN 0 7139 1469 6

In the six months since Neal Ascherson’s intricate but lucid account of the rise of Solidarity was finished, Poland’s affairs have become the latest world-heroic saga. While the climax, Soviet invasion, seems to have been replaced by General Jaruzelski’s quite unforeseen takeover, myth has already taken on the force of history, and two themes are now becoming established: that the ‘extremists’ in Solidarity overplayed their hands, thereby challenging the Soviet Union’s interest in a friendly Poland; and that by inducing Jaruzelski to move, Moscow invaded by proxy. In assessing whether such claims are valid, Ascherson’s analysis is extremely valuable. It complements Denis MacShane’s recent book[*] and raises very wide questions about patterns of working-class revolt, and the role of intellectuals, in Eastern Europe since the arrival of the people’s democracies – questions which will not disappear whatever the fate of Solidarity.

Ascherson argues the essential unity of the Polish nation, in contrast with the disunity of its political order. Poland failed to achieve modern statehood (or indeed a modern economy) when it was reconstructed in 1918. It lacked an administrative class and succumbed easily to the dictatorship of Pilsudski and his successors. Even when the Communist Party was installed after the Second World War, it failed to acquire legitimacy. Bound to a recurrent cycle of remoteness, bureaucratisation, rigidity and collapse, it was condemned to have to take over any popular movement in order to survive at all – hence the curious ceremony Ascherson records at Gdansk, in December 1980, when the state honoured its working-class victims, shot ten years before.

Ascherson’s other major theme, the innate political wisdom of the Polish people, requires a suspension of disbelief. The ‘self-limiting revolution’ of the American subtitle looks like a marker set down for a future which will not now take place. There is, in fact, a contradiction between his highly realistic narrative and his idealism, which amounts almost to an emotional identification with the Polish struggle. The fact that, despite self-limitation, Church, Solidarity and Government together failed to hold back the forces driving them apart, does not, however, vitiate the narrative, or diminish the important questions which it raises.

By the end of World War Two, successive Soviet and Nazi occupations had left nothing of the political system except memories of a spectrum which had ranged from a near-Fascist idolatry of the nation to a Communism which, whether in thrall to Luxemburg or Trotsky, was invariably opposed to Lenin and Stalin; and a Church deeply and permanently entrenched after two centuries of defending Polish culture. In these circumstances, could the Communist Party, led by Gomulka, have become legitimate? Ascherson suggests that it could, by building on its part in the Resistance, and on the alienation of the vast majority from any legacy of the old dictatorship. What he calls Gomulka’s ‘authentic political project’ was, alas, overtaken by the Cold War; and in one piece of quite tendentious history, based almost entirely on Isaac Deutscher’s interpretation, he absolves Stalin of aggressive territorial designs in Eastern Europe. Elevation of the years 1945-48 into a ‘lost moment’, however, allows him to suggest both that Poland might have become unique among the people’s democracies in maintaining some independence from the Soviet Union, and that a sort of neo-corporatist centre might have emerged to bind together working class, Church and Party under Gomulka’s enlightened rule.

It is certainly true that Gomulka sought a ‘national way’, and he may have intended the sort of pluralism that the French Communist Party used to speak of in the early 1970s, meaning tolerance for parties of the Left; and, as Ascherson argues, he did create conditions in which the Stalin era was less bloody and shorter than elsewhere. But Gomulka always had to contend with the Moscow faction in the Party, and whatever gains Poland made economically before 1955, bad practices became endemic – lack of management skills, inadequate state investment, labour indiscipline – ensuring that the economy would remain backward and dependent on Comecon, despite Poland’s natural resources. Moreover, as soon as Gomulka stood in Stalin’s way, he was set aside. The Party subsequently failed to achieve the legitimacy Gomulka had sought. Diplomacy and the Rapacki Plan had been the only margin of manoeuvre allowed by the Soviet Union – until the Warsaw Treaty of 1970 finally secured Poland’s western frontier with Germany.

Bierut, Gomulka’s apparatchik successor, presided over the first cycle formed by the clash between what the Polish historian Wladyslaw Bienkowski calls ‘the dynamics of petrifaction’ and working-class discontent bubbling up into revolt, followed by police repressions. For all Ascherson’s faith, it is hard to see any Polish genius for restraint in these cycles of 1956, 1970, 1976, except perhaps for Gomulka’s brilliant handling of the Soviet delegations in October 1956, an essay in crisis management utterly different from that of Nagy in Hungary.

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[*] Solidarity: Poland’s Independent Trade Union, Spokesman Books, 172 pp., £3. 50, 3 September 1981, 0 85124 318 5.